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The French government is easing language skills requirements and streamlining the administration in charge of granting French citizenship to reverse a fall in the number of naturalisations since 2010.
French Interior Minister Manuel Valls has introduced new measures to make French citizenship more accessible after the government of former President Nicolas Sarkozy tightened naturalisation laws.
At a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, he presented a decree reorganising the administration in charge of granting French citizenship.
“Regional platforms” will start processing the applications in eastern France next week on behalf of local offices in an attempt to curb what the government described as the “strong heterogeneity in the practices observed at the 186 processing sites nationwide and in the way applications were processed (duration, clearance rate).”
Some offices were found to reject 10% more applicants than the national average.
In the Lorraine region, naturalisation decisions will now be made by a committee including the local prefect and “two qualified persons chosen by him for their ability to evaluate a person’s path towards integration”.
Prefects, the highest government representatives in France’s administrative districts, have so far made the decision alone.
If successful, the new procedures will apply nationwide from 2015.
Another decree expected later this week will remove language tests for graduates of French-speaking universities and over 60s, and allow applicants who failed the written test a second-chance interview in French.
“I can only welcome measures that facilitate the naturalisation process for people who have been here for a very long time and are the backbone of their family – I’m thinking of immigrant women who have been rejected because they do not speak the language,” said Pierre Henry, executive director of France Terre d’Asile. His organisation lobbies for migrants’ rights.
Yet he argued that two decrees were not enough to reverse a trend that has seen the number of naturalisations halve under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, from 95,000 in 2010 to 46,000 last year.
“Six laws toughened access to citizenship between 2006 and 2011, they should be revised. The Parliament needs to step in,” Pierre Henry said.
Manuel Valls himself was born a Spanish citizen and became French when he was 20 years old through the very same naturalisation process. Shortly after becoming interior minister as a result of the Socialist Party’s electoral victory last year, he had instructed the administration to stop rejecting citizenship applications for reasons such as the lack of a full-time job.
Since then, the number of naturalisations has increased by 14%.
But according to Pierre Henry, France remains the third European country after Luxembourg and Switzerland where immigrants wait the longest before they are naturalised – 14 years on average, according to France Terre d’Asile.
“Young people who were born abroad before they moved to France must still go through the naturalisation process when they turn 18. They should be presumed to have assimilated,” he said.
France Terre d’Asile also calls for applications to be processed by a central national office to ensure even standards. Pierre Henry added that the training sessions applicants must follow before they can be naturalised should be overhauled to beef up their language and job-seeking skills.
The opposition UMP party, which had toughened naturalisation procedures when it was in power, has criticised the current government’s policy.
“Manuel Valls (…) wants to increase the number of naturalisations to facilitate the integration of immigrants… On the contrary, we think that becoming French must be the result of a successful journey of assimilation into the French community,” the party said in a statement issued on Wednesday.
Many hostile reactions also appeared on Twitter, where members of the public accused the government of trying to secure the votes of new French citizens. One user dubbed the naturalisation measures “Operation finding voters”.